They're all the rage: air rage, road rage, desk rage, surf rage -- even pedestrian rage. The incidents make the news most weeks now: Leo the dog thrown into traffic by angry driver. Enraged airline passenger causes mayhem on flight. Single father of four pummeled to death at youth hockey game.
Earlier this month, a trucker rammed a Baltimore County man's car and then pushed the stalled vehicle 12 miles north on Interstate 83 in an apparent act of road rage. The reason? The trucker believed the man had cut him off.
Although anger is a natural emotion, many authorities have begun to wonder if society isn't boiling over with it.
"We feel rage, and we express it with hostility whenever we are in public places," says Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and author of "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving." "I call it culture tantrum."
And what a poorly behaved culture we are.
Air rage incidents around the world increased from 1,132 in 1994 to 5,416 in 1997. Road rage took the lives of 218 people from 1992 to 1997 and left 12,610 people injured. Workplace violence -- "virtually unheard of until the 1970s" -- now costs businesses more than $36 billion a year, a 1995 report by the Workplace Violence Research Institute determined.
"One out of every seven Americans or so are on the verge of exploding in an act of violence," says Leonard Ingram, founder of the Anger Institute of Chicago. "The problem is not anger. The problem is mismanagement of anger."
Indeed, "anger management" has become a buzzword as everyone from psychologists to probation officers grapples with how best to cool down overheated tempers.
Many judges are directing first- time criminals to anger-management classes rather than jail. Some mental health workers are stressing anger management as much as communication in troubled marriages. And books galore are touting the importance of dealing with anger in a positive manner.
It's about time, says Shari Kirkland, a clinical psychologist and author of "Red-hot Relationships: How to Defuse the Anger and Keep the Romance."
"I think it's a significant problem, and I think it's often overlooked," Kirkland says. "As psychologists, we have the so-called Bible of diagnoses, and anger's not even mentioned in it. A lot of psychologists don't know what to do with anger or how to treat it."
"Anger," says Ingram, "is nature's way of alerting us when it is time to take action in our own best interest -- a legitimate function when there's a real threat to our own well-being."
But the things that often send us over the edge usually have little to do with our well-being. The driver who cuts in front of us or the boss who forgets to thank us for a job well done tend to trigger what Ingram calls "pseudo anger."
We distort reality to the point that we become enraged not by personal affronts or intentional malice but often by simple mistakes that may have nothing to do with us. And in our indignation, we lash out at the offending party -- often violently -- and rationalize our behavior as justified. After all, we were provoked.
"If the proper parenting were there, you wouldn't see this kind of outlandish behavior," suggests Arnold Nerenberg, a California psychologist who specializes in anger management.
Nerenberg and others blame our inability to handle our anger on a host of factors -- including stress, an irrational sense of entitlement, and the desire to dominate other people. But many place a bulk of the fault on parents and poor social role models.
They say that many people deal with anger by cursing or making obscene gestures because it's the only thing they've known. They've been taught no other alternatives.
The single greatest predictor of whether a driver will one day engage in road rage is whether he or she had a parent who was an overly aggressive driver, Nerenberg says. Children mimic what their parents do. And as adults, they continue to behave the way their culture has taught them to.
Perpetrators of road rage are overwhelmingly male, but women are most likely to use their cars to ram other drivers, statistics have shown. Teens aren't necessarily more likely to show rage on the road than older adults. But when they do, they tend to be more aggressive, Nerenberg says. And angry drivers express their rage, on average, 27 times a year.
"There have been lots of incidents with baseball bats, flying burritos, bottles -- you name it," says David Willis, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which has kept track of road rage incidents.
People have been shot for driving too slowly or playing the radio too loud.
Some psychologists believe the worst is still to come.
When asked about their ability to deal with anger, only a minority of Americans admit to having a problem, Ingram says. But most believe a majority of people don't handle anger well. It's always someone else that causes the problems. It seems we are a nation in denial.